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'Savages' lives up to its name, if not its potential, critics say

July 06, 2012|By Oliver Gettell
  • Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson in "Savages."
Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson in "Savages." (Francois Duhamel / Universal…)

"Savages," based on the novel by Don Winslow, tells the story of two Laguna Beach marijuana dealers (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) and their shared girlfriend (Blake Lively) tangling with a ruthless Mexican drug cartel. While the material would seem a natural fit for director Oliver Stone, who has never shied away from violence or politics in his work, reviews of the film have been decidedly mixed. What some critics see as a darkly entertaining pulp tale, others find muddled and excessively brutal.

The Times' Kenneth Turan is in the latter camp. While he writes that "Savages" "has a lot going for it, including a pip of a story, a propulsive narrative drive and the uber-cool blacker-than-night attitude and language of author Winslow," he also says Stone's "weakness for bloody excesses of all sorts undermines much of his good work." At times, Stone's preoccupation with violence "overpowers everything else: at those overdone moments, the tension in the scenario dissipates and you fall out of the movie."

The New York Times' A.O. Scott also finds the film imperfect but offers a more positive review, calling "Savages" a "feverish, fully baked, half-great adaptation." As Stone dabbles in different formats (including black-and-white and cellphone video) and throws together cinematic genres (the film is "a daylight noir, a western, a stoner buddy movie and a love story"), the end result is "a bit of a mess. But also a lot of fun, especially as its pulp elements rub up against some gritty geopolitical and economic themes."

PHOTOS: 'Savages' premiere in Los Angeles

For LA Weekly's Karina Longworth, the film is too long and the characters too thinly drawn. She writes, "'Savages' is bloated with plot and exposition, much of which is related via the incessant voiceover of Ophelia," who is solidly portrayed by Lively ("appropriately spacey and convincingly vulnerable") but ultimately "too naive and self-absorbed to care about." She adds that "Soul is something 'Savages' has in short supply."

Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post describes "Savages" as "a B-movie striving for an A-plus, a decadently energetic summer escape with bloody action, bold visuals and bodacious attitude to burn." Of the three protagonists, Hornaday says, only Johnson's character (a peace-loving botanist) "develops any real dimension," but "the film’s supporting players [including John Travolta as a dirty DEA agent and Benicio Del Toro as a cartel enforcer] jump out with explosive, often hilarious vividness."

The Hollywood Reporter's Tom McCarthy finds "Savages" something of a return to form for Stone — "a partial resurrection of the director's more hallucinatory, violent, sexual and, in a word, savage side" that "well expresses the story's tense uncertainties." McCarthy also echoes Hornaday in writing that "the pronounced superiority of the veteran supporting players to the young actors playing the central romantic threesome throws the balance off and leaves a high-caliber-sized hole in the middle of [the] film."

PHOTOS: 'Savages' premiere in Los Angeles

Hearst movie critic Amy Biancolli pans the film in her review, declaring it "boring" and "flat-out dull." The main issue, she says, is that "Stone, a master of pugnacity and packaging, has finally made a movie vacant of everything but style: All those flashy graphics, super-exposed colors and hyper-kinetic rewinds can't cover for a complete and utter dearth of real ideas." Biancolli deems the script "terrible," and although "the acting isn't bad … the characters, as written, boast roughly the depth and heft of a spork."

In the end it would seem that Oliver Stone's latest film is a bit polarizing. Some things never change.

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